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Food shelf visits up sharply in Minnesota

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PRISM in Golden Valley
A woman shops for food at PRISM, a food shelf based in Golden Valley. PRISM Executive Director Elizabeth Johnson says the food shelf is serving 30 percent more families than it did last year.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

A new report shows Minnesotans are increasingly seeking help to feed themselves and their families.

The advocacy group Hunger Solutions, which tracks food shelf use in the state, released numbers Monday that show a sharp rise in visits to Minnesota food shelves. 

Researchers at Hunger Solutions looked at requests for food assistance since the fall of 2008, when the nation's economy began to decline, and found dramatic numbers. In those two years, visits to food shelves have increased by 62 percent statewide. In the nine-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, visits jumped by 97 percent.

The increase is partly due to more frequent visits to food shelves by previous clients. But Hunger Solutions director Colleen Moriarty said food shelves also are seeing new people, including many who never thought they'd need help. 

"These are people who are not used to being in this circumstance," Moriarty said. "They probably used to be donors. They're not used to having to look through dented cans of artichoke hearts that somebody dragged out from the back of their cupboard for a food drive, well-meaning as that is."

Much of the new need is in the suburbs. 

PRISM, a food shelf based in Golden Valley, serves about 30 percent more families than it did last year, executive director Elizabeth Johnson said.

Ruth Fries
Ruth Fries has been volunteering at PRISM for about a year. She does all she can to make the new visitors feel welcome.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Many are people who have worked their entire adult lives, but are now out of a job and have used up their reserves.

  "What I see is what I call the new poor," said Linda Wells, a case manager at PRISM. "They've sold their snowmobiles, they've sold their boats. They have nothing left, and their houses are being foreclosed on."

PRISM volunteer Ruth Fries does what she can to make everyone feel welcome. On a recent day, she helped Keisha, a 35-year-old woman who works full-time, but started visiting the food shelf last September to help feed her six children. 

"All of a sudden my husband lost his job, and our income dropped by half," said Keisha, who did not want to give her last name. "I still had to feed my children, I still had to pay my mortgage. It was so overwhelming to know that I needed help with something as basic as food, just so my kids can survive."

  Keisha did what a lot of people do -- she put off going to the food shelf. First, she and her husband used their savings. Later, they borrowed from their parents. They raided their daughter's college fund. Then she made the call to the food shelf.

PRISM food shelf
People visiting the PRISM food shelf in Golden Valley, Minn., choose the food they want to take home. Each person is allowed a certain number of pounds, based on the size of their family.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

  "I used to donate to food shelves -- bags and bags of groceries," she said. "Even now, I donate my kids' clothes that don't fit. I just didn't think it was going to be me."

Keisha doesn't come every month. If her husband has a temp job, they don't need the help. She doesn't tell her colleagues at work, and her kids don't tell many of their friends.

But for her family, food shelf day is a good day.

  "It's the treat day. I don't buy the chips, the pop, the cookies," Keisha said. "I don't do any of that, because that's extra stuff. I can't afford that. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that's what they get. Having cookies is a luxury."

  Keisha hopes her situation is temporary, as she expects her husband will eventually find a full-time job.  But she's just one of many Minnesotans who now needs help to feed her family.

The report by Hunger Solutions also shows a 66 percent increase in the number of Minnesotans enrolled in the federal food stamp program since the fall of 2008 -- and more children eligible for federally funded free and reduced-price lunch at school.